Communism of Capital

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Rachel O’Dwyer:

"Today we are witnessing the reconfiguration of pre-capitalist forms of social coordination in the computational-informational space. This includes a range of nonmarket and non-proprietary activities such as open source software and open standards, peer-to-peer economies, and distributed forms of production over networks. As the informational network migrates from a traditional desktop model, becoming invested in everyday spaces through mobile and pervasive platforms, such activities are thought to be capable of inflecting not only social and juridical processes, but material economies (Rheingold, 2002; Kluitenberg, 2007). This ideology of the digital commons has many advocates in both the communities of digital activism and the core apparatuses of neoliberal power.

Traditional economic theories and the new schemes proposed by the advocates of the digital commons provide only a partial understanding of this burgeoning economy. Proceeding from a dialectical perspective, the range of cooperative activities taking place over digital networks appear to transcend the traditional enclosures of capital, operating over gift economies and forms of social capital. At the same time, recent conditions point to a conflictive terrain in which these very activities emerge at the centre of the valorisation process. Such conflicts include the growing centrality of open source to the corporate value chain and the new streams of revenue based around user-generated content. Specular to these activities are the new enclosures applied over communications ‘infrastructure’ such as bandwidth, consumer devices and network architectures. This is not to say that value is not communally held and produced, but that the apparatuses that leverage its extraction are not held in common. The combination of these two circumstances is significant, transforming the qualities of both. On one hand, the commons moves from a pre-capitalist legacy towards the centre of the market, and on the other, the value of property becomes less a question of a rent over infrastructure alone, and more one of leveraging a title to extract value from commons-based peer-production (O’Dwyer and Doyle, 2012). The traditional dichotomies of socialism vs. capitalism or property vs. the commons would not seem adequate to sketch such a system.

Recent critical activity is about learning a new political vocabulary to attend to these conditions. Post-Operaismo theorists have sketched an outline of the fundamental transformations underlying Post-Fordist capitalism (Virno, 2004; Marazzi, 2007; Hardt and Negri, 2009; Hardt, 2010; Vercellone, 2010). These include changes to the conditions and products of capitalist accumulation, structural alterations to the property relations under which labour produces and changes to the technical composition of labour (Hardt, 2010).

A full rehearsal of these is beyond the scope of this paper, but as they relate to the digital commons they include:

  • A shift from the hegemony of material goods to immaterial goods such as knowledge, cultural capital and social/affective relations. Though material goods like cars and houses continue to play a significant role in the economy, these are supplemented by a range of commodities previously cast as external to the market, and typically held and produced in common.
  • Transformations from productive capital and strict property regimes typical of the industrial era towards the parasitic extraction of rent over common outputs.
  • Consequentially new models of labour have also come to the fore. In the context of the network economy, waged labour and capitalist intervention in production is replaced by ‘precarity’ and a variety of automated apparatuses for the extraction of surplus. (Virno, 2004)

It should be clear that the key to understanding economic production today lies with the commons. Capitalism needs the commons and consequently a range of systems to regulate and enclose its products. Where once these enclosures operated over land, today they operate over the entirety of human knowledge. We witness this where neoliberal enterprise converges on the natural resources and productive capacities of societies. The extraction of tertiary outputs, the rent extracted by real estate from local cultural injections and the enclosure of local knowledge under intellectual property regimes are key instances of this process.

Hardt and Negri (2009) outline two different types of commons: firstly, the natural, describing material and finite resources such as common land, agricultural and mineral resources and, secondly, the cultural or ‘artificial’ commons, describing intangible products such as common knowledge, language and shared culture. While this second commons still operates through very material channels, their outputs may not be subject to the same logics of scarcity as a natural resource. In turn the range of different forms of the commons are also subject to different forms of enclosure and systems of accumulation. In an information economy, it is readily accepted that a degree of freedom is essential to productivity, where access to common knowledge, codes and standards are essential for innovation and economic growth. Privatisation through intellectual property or other forms of enclosure destroys the productive potential of the commons. In the communism of capital, therefore, and particularly in the digital commons, we increasingly encounter a condition that inverts the standard narrative of economic freedom, where openness as opposed to private control is the locus of accumulation (Von Hippel, 2005). Examples of this include the commercial development of Android, an ‘open’ and ‘free’ mobile platform by the Open Handset Alliance or the role of open source systems such as Linux to IT corporations like IBM.

All that said, an economy centred on the reproduction and distribution of digital commodities must still account for their translation into exchange value, which occurs outside of the commons (Pasquinelli, 2008). The digital commons stands against private control exerted by property, legal structures and market forces, and yet these economic barriers prevail in the substrate of the system, regulated by a temporary monopoly of exploitation conferred by licenses, patents, trademarks and copyright, capturing value before the true potential of the commons can be realised.

The digital commons is traditionally framed in a tiered structure that echoes the models commonly employed by network architecture. Different layers of contingent logical and physical strata form an assemblage concerned with the interoperation of terminal devices and the circulation of content through communication channels. This network comprises the content itself and the layers of software-defined protocols that proceed from the user down to the physical resources underpinning the network: storage and processing technologies, terminal devices, transmitters, routers, spectrum, real estate, man power and energy. Together these form the substrate architecture over which the digital commons is produced. New streams of value are increasingly identified within this space, from the transmissions channels that form part of the telecommunications value chain, through to the attention economy that underscores monopolies such as Google and Facebook. Rights governing access to communications are at the heart of this economy, as the core infrastructure that underscores digital labour. Any reforms, therefore, need to look to the architectures that flank the digital commons, to the policies, property regimes, protocols and technological standards that structure this conflictive space[2]. This paper explores the property regimes surrounding the underlying architecture of mobile and wireless networks – electromagnetic spectrum." (

The Becoming-Rent of Profit

Rachel O’Dwyer:

The communism of capital is characterised by a return and proliferation of forms of rent (Vercellone, 2010). Rent is the revenue that can be extracted from exclusive ownership of a resource, where value is contingent on its availability with respect to demand (Harvey, 2001). Industrial capitalism concerned direct intervention in the production process, and subsequently in the generation of profit. In industrial capitalism, therefore, rent is characterised as external to production and distinct from profit. Industrial capitalism constituted a shifting emphasis from immobile to movable property, corresponding to a shift from primitive accumulation towards profit. Rent was largely understood as a pre-capitalist legacy, traditionally associated with immobile forms of property such as land. Where ‘rent’ is the primary locus of value, the rentier is thought to be external to the production of value, merely extracting the economic rent produced by other means. The generation of profit, in contrast, requires the direct intervention of the capitalist in the production and circulation of material commodities. It is associated with the ability to generate and extract surplus (Vercellone, 2008, 2010). This transformation from rent to profit, many theorists argue, is emblematic of a passage from primitive accumulation to capitalist productive power in industrial capitalism (Hardt, 2010). In contrast, capitalist accumulation is today characterised by a shift from the productive forms of capitalism that characterised the industrial era towards new modalities in which rent is no longer cast in opposition to profit. Through the growing role of property in extracting value from a position external to production, and the manipulation of the social and political environment in which economic activities occur, such as the management of scarcity and the increasingly speculative nature of capital itself, the core tenets of ‘rent’ are confused with ‘profit’. This is described in the Post-Operaismo theory of the ‘becoming-rent of profit’, an economic theory specular to the communism of capital.

Rent, as Pasquinelli (2008) maintains, is the flipside of the commons. Through the rent applied over proprietary frameworks that flank the digital commons, the material surplus of immaterial labour is opened to extraction. Spectrum, in this case, like a monopoly over knowledge, decision engines, storage or processing capacities, provides the owner of that informational resource with the opportunity to leverage this property in order to extract value from a position external to its production. Where wireless transmissions are concerned, underpinning this process is the reification and subsequent rarefaction of radio signals – the commodification of electromagnetic transmissions followed by progressive arguments for the necessity of institutional regulation, first through state bodies, and later, increasingly through enterprise.

The becoming-rent of profit: Enclosure

Enclosure of the digital commons operates through the dual processes of dispossession and deregulation of these architectures (Dyer-Witheford, 1999; Hardt and Negri, 2009). To secure cooperation, capital must first appropriate the communicative capacities of the labour force. Common tools are appropriated and filtered through administrative channels, at which point they are once again distributed as part of the services capital must deliver to the labour force in order to ensure its ongoing development. But how does enclosure operate over something as intangible as electromagnetic spectrum? Throughout the history of radio communications, a variety of apparatuses that perform this enclosure can be identified, at turns semantic, technical and juridical.

The becoming-rent of profit: The production of scarcity

Beyond the enclosure of the commons, the survival of exchange value is increasingly contingent on the destruction of non-renewable scarce resources and/or the creation of an artificial scarcity where these goods are by nature non-rival and reproducible. Enclosure and scarcity go hand in hand; there is no chronology as such. The extraction of rent is dynamic and these elements, which are separated for clarity in this paper, are in reality entangled, imbricated and mutually enforcing.

According to Vercellone (2010), resources on which rentier appropriation is based today do not tend to increase with rent; indeed they do exactly the opposite. To quote Napoleoni’s (1956) definition, rent is ‘the revenue that the owner of certain goods receives as a consequence of the fact that these goods, are, or become, available in scarce quantities’ (quoted in Vercellone, 2010: 95). Rent is thus linked to the artificial scarcity of a resource, and to a logic of rarefaction, as in the case of monopolies. Rent, therefore, leverages monopolistic or oligopolistic forms of property, and positions of political power that facilitate the manufacture of scarcity. Scarcity in the digital commons is induced by a variety of juridical artefacts such as intellectual property or digital rights management in the case of digital content, and through a combination of rhetorical devices and technological or juridical regulations in the case of electromagnetic spectrum." (

Contradictions in the communism of capital

Rachel O’Dwyer:

"There are irreconcilable elements inherent to the communism of capital. These are sometimes presented as a contradiction between the productive nature of the capitalist, as a generator of new forms of wealth, and the parasitic character of the rentier. By exploring the communism of capital through the lens of spectrum regulation, however, it would appear that this condition is more nuanced. Hardt and Negri frame the centrality of the commons to capital as a metastable condition that will eventually exceed its boundaries and give way to the productive multitude, arguing that ‘the freedom required for biopolitical production also includes the power to construct social relationships and create autonomous social institutions’ (2009: 310). Here, the hegemony of the digital commons constitutes the provision of social tools and critical faculties required to mobilise the labour force. This perspective is echoed by advocates of free culture such as Benkler (2006), who understands the economic importance of cultural production as an emancipatory force and Rheingold (2002), who views pervasive media as a vital tool for political mobilisation. However, without a common infrastructure including an open physical layer, an open logical layer and an open content layer, such social and intellectual activity is still open to extraction. It is therefore worth looking beyond the ways in which the centrality of the digital commons cultivates social and cooperative capacities to how the hegemony of the commons inflects the property relations that underpin the substrate of the network. It is here that we encounter various structural antagonisms at operation in the expropriation of the digital commons. This is where the circulation of immaterial products – those ‘freely reproducible’ outputs of the digital commons – show their material and energetic expenditure. This is reflected not only in the productive power of minds and bodies, but in the storage and processing power, electricity, cooling resources and bandwidth required to support an immaterial economy of goods and services.

We are witnessing attempts to integrate an ‘immaterial’ surplus not easily subjected to proprietary logic into a progressive growth dynamic established on the forms of enclosure that conditioned accumulation in industrial capitalism. This produces antagonisms where the necessary openness of the digital commons intersects with attempts to establish economic barriers over the infrastructure that facilitates its production. In other words, where openness and fluidity are a necessary condition of the communism of capital, the ‘old’ property rights represent a structural impasse." (

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